Friday, June 09, 2006

Moral panic

Worth reading Polly Toynbee today on the current preoccupation with knife crime and the threat of yet more knee-jerk policy-making:

Knife crime is the panic of the day. Recently there have been some horrible murders, including those of a brave student defending a woman on a train, a father of three stabbed after spending a day volunteering, and a popular 15-year-old knifed outside his school gates - all heartbreaking deaths.

They were enough to send the press phoning round police stations for more hair-raising knife tales: there were plenty to be found. It was, they said, "a wave", "a spate", "an epidemic"...

But horrible though these crimes are, there is no upsurge. In 1995 there were 243 murders with sharp instruments; 10 years later there were slightly fewer, at 236 last year. Over the decade the average weekly number of knife murders has been four and a half - and recently, during this panic, there have been no more than four knife murders a week. Anecdotes stick horribly in the memory, but the figures tell another story.

Knowing that knifings are not "out of control" but probably in a steady state would calm public nerves. But instead of explaining that, the government promises to lock everyone up. John Reid is considering amending the violent crime reduction bill to introduce a mandatory five-year sentence for carrying a knife.


One thing that puzzles us is an assertion later in the piece that “Youth Inclusion and Support Panels cut 15 crimes per £1,000 spent.” We’re not aware that the long-promised YISP evaluation has been completed, so it’s hard to see how this claim can be made. The evaluation of its little brother, the Youth Intervention Programme, was less than fulsome:
There is evidence that the majority of the top 50 are being arrested less since their engagement on the programme, and for less serious offences. In addition, there has been a reduction in exclusion from schools (albeit the data on this issue is far from comprehensive). On the other hand, there is inescapable evidence that the programme appears to be falling short of the current target that three quarters of projects will have experienced a 30% reduction in crime by March 2004.

The whole agenda of ‘predicting’ which children will become offenders is in any case
highly controversial, as we’ve said before. There’s a great deal more about these 'predictive' youth offending systems on our database masterclass blog.

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